The Patriots are off to a great start in the 2023 NFL Draft by selecting Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez in the first round on Thursday night.
A year after making a surprising selection on day one, New England made a consensus selection with Gonzalez, who was my top-rated corner in the entire draft, my number-one target for the Patriots on my big board, and a prospect that many viewed as a top-ten talent in this draft. The Pats also got Gonzalez while picking up a fourth-round selection (No. 120).
The intrigue with Gonzalez is an elite athletic profile, excellent straight-line speed and explosiveness, fluidity to mirror receivers at all three levels, and a cerebral and instinctive defender who can play in multiple coverage schemes. Gonzalez rounds out New England's secondary, giving the Pats an outside corner with true number one CB upside.
Although it's very early to project roles, Gonzalez has the potential to play the boundary corner position against true X receiver, with Jonathan Jones playing the field (Z) and Marcus Jones manning the slot. Gonzalez's 6-foot-1 frame at nearly 200 pounds adds more size to a relatively undersized cornerback room.
Over the last two-plus decades, head coach Bill Belichick's defense has been at its best when the Patriots have a shutdown corner in the Stephon Gilmore or Ty Law mold. Let's not put those expectations on Gonzalez yet, but he has the physical tools to be the next lockdown corner in Foxboro. With the loaded offenses around the AFC, the Patriots can now feel better about matching up against Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, and Miami's explosive offense in the division.
We'll do a deep dive into Gonzalez's film, strengths and weaknesses, and fit in the Patriots defense in the coming days. For now, let's look at the best available players remaining as we head into day two of the NFL Draft.
After selecting a corner in round one, we'll remove cornerbacks from the equation for now while emphasizing adding talent to the offensive side of the ball:
1. TE Michael Mayer, Notre Dame
One of the surprises from night one was that the do-it-all tight end from Notre Dame wasn't selected in the first round. Mayer's average athletic profile might've pushed him into day two, but he's a smooth receiver with excellent hands to snag any pass within his catch radius. Mayer also has alignment flexibility and is an NFL-ready blocker. He logged snaps in-line, out of the slot, and flexed as an H-Back at Notre Dame, while also blocking at a high level from multiple spots. Mayer isn't the most athletic tight end prospect in this draft, but he's the most polished (pro comparison: T.J. Hockenson).
2. OT Dawand Jones, Ohio State
New England opted to pass on Georgia left tackle Broderick Jones on Thursday night, trading the 14th overall selection to Pittsburgh, who selected Jones. After picking a corner on day one, the Patriots missed out on the top-tier tackles on my board other than Dawand Jones. The hulking right tackle for the Buckeyes is a rare specimen with impressive athleticism for a 6-8, 374-pound power blocker. Jones, as you'd expect, is a bit heavy-footed. But he uses his immense length (36-inch arms) and hand strength to shut down pass-rushers before they even get started. As a run blocker, he has people-moving strength for days as a legit difference-maker. You look for instances on film where Jones struggles to pass protect due to his size, but he rarely loses by playing to his strengths (pro comparison: Trent Brown).
3. DB Brian Branch, Alabama
The first defensive prospect we'll highlight here feels like a Patriot, and adding Branch to the defensive backfield would help the Pats replace future red-jacket lock Devin McCourty. A smart team will trust the tape with Branch, ignoring a pedestrian combine to get a heck of a football player. Branch's performance against Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl is in the running for the best tape in this class. Although he played the "star" role as a slot defender in Nick Saban's defense, he could transition to free safety in the NFL, where he can use his instincts and ball skills to turn the football over. Branch would then add versatility as a player who can also cover receivers as a slot corner (pro comparison: Micah Hyde).
4. TE Darnell Washington, Georgia
Now, back to the offensive playmakers. Adding Washington to Gonzalez at the top of the draft would give the Pats two of the best athletes in this class. However, Washington's combine workout needs context while discussing his evaluation. Yes, he's a 6-6, 264-pound alien with an elite athletic profile. His tape shows a powerful bulldozing blocker, enough juice to stretch defense's vertically and body control to adjust to the football, and flashes of high-end YAC ability. But Washington is a bit of a project, with only 45 career catches for the Bulldogs. He's also a builder of speed rather than an instant accelerator and needs some seasoning as a blocker. This is a classic boom-or-bust prospect: he's either Rob Gronkowski or a more athletic Marcedes Lewis (pro comparison: discount Gronk).
5. WR Josh Downs, North Carolina
After the run at wide receiver in the early 20s on night one, my draft crush, Zay Flowers, unfortunately, went to the Ravens on Thursday night. Instead, the Pats could pivot to Downs, who has a similar skill set to Flowers but lacks the added gear of explosiveness. Still, he's an incredibly crafty route runner who eats up defenders' leverage, has elite change-of-direction talent, and is a better vertical threat than his slot profile would suggest. Downs consistently drew extra attention between the numbers for North Carolina and could control the middle of the field in New England as well (pro comparison: Darnell Mooney).
6. TE Sam LaPorta, Iowa
Speaking of demanding attention in the middle of the field, I'm higher on LaPorta than anyone and would've selected him over Buffalo first-rounder Dalton Kincaid. The Iowa product is a fantastic athlete (9.02 RAS), and his elite separation quickness for a 245-pound receiver was backed up by an 88th-percentile three-cone time (6.91s). LaPorta plays fast, is ridiculously quick through the top of the route, and averaged over six yards after the catch per reception with 20 forced miss tackles (via PFF). With Bill O'Brien's ability to exploit matchups in the middle of the field, LaPorta has the tools to become a chain-moving engine for the Pats offense (pro comparison: George Kittle with less blocking chops).
7. OL Matthew Bergeron, Syracuse
There was some buzz heading into the draft that Bergeron could sneak into the first round, and he checks those three boxes we always hear from Patriots staffers: tough, dependable, and smart. Bergeron logged time at both tackle spots as a tone-setting blocker with an aggressive mindset to run blocking. His latch strength and ability to direct defenders where he wants them to go is dominant at times while routinely caving in the line of scrimmage on double-team blocks. Bergeron plays under control with a solid base in pass protection, but some heavy-footed reps and limited range give you pause at tackle. Bergeron's limited foot speed in pass protection could lead to a transition inside to guard, but he has the length (33 ¾" arms) and power that New England typically likes at right tackle (pro comparison: Marcus Cannon).
8. WR Jonathan Mingo, Ole Miss
Mingo is a classic size-speed prospect with a noticeable burst off the line to stretch a defense and enticing versatility. The first thing that stands out is how well he moves at 6-2, 220 pounds, with a 4.46-second 40. He can also present matchup issues as a big slot, play snaps as an H-Back or flex tight end, and shows some lateral agility to get off press coverage on the outside. Mingo isn't a natural separator at the top of routes, but his speed and large frame give him a chance as a big play threat (pro comparison: discount A.J. Brown).
9. TE Tucker Kraft, South Dakota State
In a snippet from The Athletic's draft guide, NFL Draft expert Dane Brugler noted that Alabama tried to pry Kraft away from the Jackrabbits with a lucrative NIL deal. Could offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien get his guy now? Kraft is a stellar athlete with noticeable straight-line speed, great hands with a large catch radius, an innate ability to find the soft spots in zone coverages, and elite YAC ability averaging over seven YAC per reception. Although he's not a great in-line blocker yet, Kraft can effectively block on the move and in space. He'll be a useful Swiss army knife at the next level (pro comparison: bigger Gerald Everett).
10. OT Tyler Steen, Alabama
Speaking of Bill O'Brien's guys, the Crimson Tide's left tackle for the 2022 season is an intriguing day-two fit for New England. Steen blocks with a sturdy base to generate power, uses a strong inside hand to widen the pocket, has enough foot speed to mirror edge rushers on an island, and knack to recover quickly. His body is built more like a guard, though, as his shorter arms and thick frame suggest he'd be better on the inside. Still, as a mid-round guy, he has starting value at four different positions (pro comparison: Max Scharping).
11. WR Marvin Mims, Oklahoma
If the Patriots could continue adding speed to the offense by pairing Mims with Tyquan Thornton, that'll give quarterback Mac Jones two legit field stretchers to target downfield. Mims had outstanding production and a terrific athletic profile, with a 4.38-second 40-yard dash. He can use his speed to stretch the defense vertically, horizontally and makes outstanding acrobatic catches when facing tight coverage on the boundary. The Pats already have a developmental burner on the roster in Thornton, but Mims is further along with his ball skills and an NFL-ready route tree (pro comparison: David Patten).
12. EDGE Isaiah Foskey, Notre Dame
Foskey is a long-limbed edge rusher who can play either in a two-point stance as an outside linebacker or has the functional power to rush with his hand in the dirt (see back-to-back goal-line stuffs vs. UNC). Foskey uses an effective long arm as a foundational pass-rush move, locking out his length to soften the corner, and will counter that with a "ghost" rush or push-pull technique nicely. Foskey needs to become more consistent as an edge-setter against the run, but he has savvy in his pass-rush plan and the tools to develop into a more well-rounded player (pro comparison: Harold Landry).
Other Remaining Players on Lazar's Big Board (non-corners)
- OT Blake Freeland, BYU
- OL Cody Mauch, North Dakota State
- EDGE Derick Hall, Auburn
- LB Drew Sanders, Arkansas
- DB Jordan Battle, Alabama
- DB Jartavius Martin, Illinois
- WR Charlie Jones, Purdue
- TE Luke Schoonmaker, Michigan
- TE Zack Kuntz, Old Dominion
- EDGE Tyrus Wheat, Mississippi State
Other Remaining Players non-Big Board Edition
- EDGE Keion White
- EDGE Byron Young
- WR Cedric Tillman
- WR Tyler Scott
- TE Luke Musgrave
- OT Wanya Morris, Oklahoma
- OT Jaelyn Duncan, Maryland
- OT Nick Saldiveri, Old Dominion
DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer